In what The New York Times calls the biggest presidential primary debate in history, 12 candidates fight against one another for time.
The debate was nothing if not tense on Wednesday night. The first topic was impeachment, and the moderators did well to work their way down from the highest pollsters to the lowest. However, it didn’t take long for the pressure to build for Elizabeth Warren, as she now appears to be the front-runner in the polls.
She was asked early in the debate if her health care plan would raise taxes on the middle class, a big concern for those who are wary of the idea of Medicare-for-all, and it turned out to be quite the tough question. The Massachusetts senator insisted on saying only that “costs” would go down for middle class families, carefully dancing around how taxes would be affected.
Pete Buttigieg criticized her refusal to speak in reference directly to taxes and applauded Bernie Sanders for being able to admit that his plan would raise taxes. It didn’t take long for Amy Klobuchar to hop in and criticize Warren for much of the same thing and the early moment did well to set the tone for the rest of the debate as it was most certainly not the last time a candidate attempted to bring her down a bit.
Joe Biden was even a bit more daring than he had been in previous debates, continuing to allude to the days that Barack Obama was in office but with more willingness to go head-to-head with other people on stage. He too went after Warren in a somewhat controversial moment. After Warren spoke of her part in the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), Biden got a little animated, feeling as though his role in the creation of the unit had been overlooked. The moment has been criticized, both for the ambiguity of how much Biden actually helped, if at all, in what is typically an accomplishment attributed to Warren and for how he raised his voice and turned with a pointed hand to address Warren on the matter.
As for the interlocutors that missed the last debate, Tulsi Gabbard and Tom Steyer were both unique presences on the stage. Gabbard had been in the earlier debates but didn’t yet have the polling numbers for the last debate. She definitely picked up some attention this time, as she talked earlier in the week about potentially boycotting the event because of an apparent “rigging” of the primary race by Democratic Party.
Perhaps even more controversially, she also heavily criticized the “mainstream media” for their depiction of her and directly called out the sponsors of the event, CNN and The New York Times. If taking on one of the president’s favorite targets wasn’t enough, she also consistently took the most radical anti-conflict stance, bringing up concerns from Buttigieg, the only other veteran on the stage.
Steyer was not as radical, keeping a mostly optimistic viewpoint and a kind attitude toward his competitors, mentioning how happy he was to be on the stage finally and how anyone on the stage would be better than the current president. His most memorable moment was potentially when he was asked, as the only billionaire on the stage, how he felt about the possibility of billionaires being taxed out of existence.
However, his response seemed to go over well with the crowd when he responded simply that he wasn’t worried and that he probably should be paying quite a bit more in taxes.
For many of the other candidates though, it was still about trying to gain a little more name recognition by championing popular Democratic ideals. Kamala Harris turned a question on how healthcare would be provided for people into a discussion of the attacks on women’s reproductive care, and Cory Booker used his following speaking slot to refer back to the moment and applaud Harris for bringing up the issue.
Andrew Yang got to lead the discussion on the automation of jobs with another quick discussion of his plan for a Universal Basic Income, and Beto O’Rourke got the chance to defend his plan for a mandatory buyback of certain assault rifles.
The only candidate without a big jumpout moment was Julián Castro who had a relatively neutral performance. Outside of the highest polling candidates and their harshest critics, many responses appeared as attempts to simply find the right thing to say to gain serious favor in the polls.
For the lower-polling candidates, the need to gain attention is imperative. The next debate is slated for Nov. 20 and has stiffer requirements — only eight candidates have qualified so far. Those from last night who have not yet qualified are Julián Castro, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke and Tulsi Gabbard, all of which who have reached the donor requirement but not the polling requirement. There are also seven declared candidates who have not yet met either qualification; however, they have all been absent for a few debates now if not from all debates.
It should be interesting to see who qualifies for the next debate, but it may still be a very long time before a final candidate is chosen.